Read CHAPTER 12 of Hunters Out of Space , free online book, by Joseph Everidge Kelleam, on ReadCentral.com.

He had been drowned. He was floating in a sea of light, and now and then shining little fishes swam inquisitively up to him and stared. They would look at him with wide, cold eyes and then dart off into space, leaving a flashing wake behind them. They hurtled through the murky light like shooting stars. And once two of them dashed together and burst like a rocket. The sparks came falling down through a billion miles of space, and as they fell they built up planets and systems of their own. Until a dark coil that had the shape of a dragon slithered across the milky way and began to devour them one by one. The sparks disappeared into its dark maw. Then it turned about and came snuffling the air as it looked for him. It found him and buried its long fangs in the back of his skull.

Jack Odin groaned in pain and awoke. The pain hit him again and he thrust out with his arms. But strong hands were holding him down.

He became conscious of a buzzing, murmuring sound. It was neither sad nor glad. Something like the sound that the last bee of autumn makes as it hovers above the last ball of clover.

Something was falling across the back of his neck and spreading out across his shoulders. Like a woman’s hair, he thought. Perhaps it was a bit coarser. But not much. But then, just as the strange soothing feeling was putting him back to sleep, the hairs changed their soft caress and a dozen of them plunged into his spinal cord and upward into that small old-brain where all the bogies of the stone age still cowered.

Odin yelled in pain and fought. But the hands held him tight. In his ears he could hear someone else screaming and cursing threatening all sorts of vengeance. The voice was Gunnar’s.

Three times more the soft mane of hair caressed him and three times more just as he was getting ready to go back to sleep the torture began. And all the while he was lying upon his belly, his face thrust into a pillow. He could see little as he writhed from one side to the other. The hands held him securely. And once when he almost struggled clear, a strong knee was thrust into his back and forced him down.

At intervals, he could hear Gunnar’s voice and his own crying, pleading, threatening.

Then at last it was over. The hands turned Odin upon his back and he lay there, gasping and hurting, like one who has just come up from deep water.

The lights were so bright that at first he could see nothing. Then his vision cleared and he knew where he was in the surgery room of the Nebula.

Ato was standing nearby, trying to reassure him. Beside Odin on another bed was Gunnar, lying flat on his back and stripped to the waist. Gunnar was howling curses and kicking like a frog.

A doctor and a nurse were there. And completing the group was Nea holding a round object in each hand round things with unkempt, trailing hair. He was not completely conscious and for a second she looked like a high priestess of the Amazon, holding two mummified heads before her

The pain left him. His mind cleared and he lay there gasping from the ordeal.

Ato and Nea smiled at them. So cheerfully that he almost expected them to write out a bill for surgical fees.

“God, that was a close one,” Ato said, and wiped his forehead. “Five hours of it. And it was touch and go all the time.”

“What happened?” Odin asked. He remembered something about a glittering tomb and Maya awakening from her long sleep and Grim Hagen. He even remembered the Bron carelessly swinging Piper’s head by the hair. But these were mere scenes that flashed before his mind. He could not fit them together, as yet.

“Tell him, Nea,” Ato said.

She smiled proudly. “It was my invention that saved you. You see, I have two of them now. I told you that they are as near as we can get to making living things. And I also told you that there is much more to them than you saw. They are destroyers and they are builders. We found you dead or nearly so. Hagen had sent volt after volt through your bodies. You were electrocuted.”

“We hurried you back to the ship. And all this time, while Ato steered us back into space, the Kalis and I for that is what I have decided to call them have been working over you. You might say that we are master electronicians, rebuilding circuits, repairing transistors and condensers ”

“You were plenty rough,” Gunnar grumbled.

“We had to be. Do you remember a story about the bush-men dying from a curse? Here.” She held her two precious Kalis in one arm while she tapped the base of her skull. “In here is a bulb, the old brain, not even an idiot’s brain, that brought you up from the jungle. It is a simple, worrying brain. Easily frightened. Easily convinced. It was convinced that you were dead. We had to arouse it.”

Odin fancied that he could hear the two Kalis purring contentedly like cats. Well, they had done a good job. Let them purr. He would like to have thanked them, but how can you thank two bowling balls with scalps of cat’s whisker wire?

Gunnar sat up and began grumbling anew: “Well, thanks. Now, get me some clothes. Freida would not like it if I sat here half-undressed before a young lady. And tell me where we are?”

It was Ato’s turn to talk. “I threw The Nebula into the Fourth Drive some time ago. That may have helped to save your lives too. We should check on that, Nea.”

“Will you please tell me where we are?” Gunnar demanded.

“Give me time, little man,” Ato retorted. “We are back in Trans-Einsteinian space, and Aldebaran and its worlds are far behind us. Ahead of us is Grim Hagen and the Old Ship. Maya is with him. So are at least a hundred of the white-skinned captains from the planet we just left. Also, a dozen Brons. Maybe more, but not many. What we saw at the council that day when Rama defied Grim Hagen was just a sample of what was to follow. The people were bled white. Graft, corruption, and patronage had taken its toll. Some of the Brons were older and wanted to rest. But injustice couldn’t stop until the last tear had washed away the last drop of blood. A few of the Brons and most of the slaves revolted. They won, of course. Grim Hagen should have known the result. He and his men were in flight when they found you and took Maya. They gathered at the Old Ship and took off. Meanwhile, we fought our way out of the city. We decided to have one last try for Maya. But we found you two and a dead Bron and the head of a native. We brought you here and took off. All this time I have had a fix on Hagen.”

“Can’t we overtake him?” Odin asked.

“We are trying to. He seems to be heading for a huge dust-cloud. He also sent us a message. Some nonsense about having contacted some race at the edge of creation who would go with him to plunder the stars. He demanded the secret of Wolden’s invention again. I think his mind is going fast.”

“Not as fast as he will go if I ever get my hands on him,” Gunnar promised.

“But Maya is awake now,” Ato explained. “We had time on our side before. Now, if he gets away from us he can live out his days on some obscure planet. The years will pass like a whirlwind while we go dashing this way and that, and in a surprisingly short time our willing and unwilling fugitives will have lived out their lives. They have the vagaries of time, space, and speed upon their side.”

Nea laughed. “Even as I said before.” She gave Jack Odin a searching look, but Odin avoided her gaze

“Then, what have you done?” Odin asked.

“All that I could do under the circumstances. I have a fix upon him. We sapped all the energy from Aldebaran that we could. We have power enough, but there are no stars nearby. As I said before, he is heading for a dust-cloud. There, both ships can replenish their energy. After that we will have to stick close by him and see what happens. After all, we are behind him. By the old Airmen’s rule of thumb, a ship with another upon its tail is a hundred percent loss.”

“Only at that moment,” Odin corrected. “If not destroyed, it has a chance to improve its percentage when the pursuer has made its pass.”

“True enough,” Ato admitted. “That is why I propose to stay close behind it. I can’t seem to find that dust cloud on any map. It must be far, far away.”

Nea laughed again. “What is far? What is near? You do not even have catch-words for Trans-Space. You are looking into the books of the advanced classes, and you have not yet opened the primers of space.”

Ato flushed in anger. “Nea, I was my father’s helper for years and years. I know as much about space as any man.”

She shrugged. “Oh, you can cover blackboards with formulas, and I don’t doubt that they will be right. But living things and living emotions demand something to cling to. A measuring stick. Grim Hagen tried to give them something substantial back there: A system of brutality and graft that worked for the last-minute Caesars. He even threw in a goddess. Did he succeed?”

She paused to caress the two things she held in her arms. “My pets know more about time and space and energy than all of you, don’t you, dears?” She kissed one of them and gave Odin a mysterious smile.

The Kalis began purring contentedly, as though space were no more than a huge living room, and they were beside a comfortable fireplace, looking up at their all-powerful mistress.